Thoughts and issues regarding the past and present of a great football club by "The Chronicler".

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Wanted: A Custodian Who Cares (Enough)

I sit here still pondering on just how Villa got to its current state. Reflecting even further, I also wonder if anything has really moved on since 1945, nearly 70 years ago. We can point to short periods of success of different qualities in the 1970s/80s and mid-1990s, and one or two other good blips, but the really good years only amount to some 15 years out of 70 years. Okay, I’ll be generous and say 18 years to include the 3 x 6th-placed years under O’Neill.

That’s 25% (mixed and flitting) worthwhile results since World War Two. Boy, this “sleeping giant” has certainly slumbered! And slumbered so much that it’s mostly been out of touch with the rest of football development, particularly since 1961, the year when football was turned upside down. Even the year itself could be turned upside-down (to read the same)! It was the year when modern football really started.

It was in 1961 that a professional footballers’ strike was threatened. At the 11th hour, the authorities climbed down and agreed to remove the fixed wage structure that had been operating for 60 years. Aston Villa opposed that move, but that was a bit rich as Villa opposed the introduction of the fixed wage structure in the first place (in 1901), and chairman Fred Rinder was always an ardent opponent of the system. He fought for years to have the system abolished. After all, Villa had carried all before them in the 1890s partly because they were paying their players higher wages than pretty well any other club.

Villa, after all, was the first Superclub.

For those that are interested, some of Villa’s top players got £6 per week in 1900 – an income that in those days was on a par with what the best people people were earning in the traditional professions. The typical players’ wage in the top-flight, however, was then £3 or £4 per week.

Villa had to develop different methods to find success in the early 1900s, as they did in the 1960s. The difference in the 1960s was that Villa did not have a board that was properly football-savvy nor commercially aware; they had somehow dragged Villa through the years since 1945 and were unable to bring in sufficient extra revenue to pay the higher wages to attract top players from 1961. The likes of Liverpool, Man U, Chelsea and Spurs thrived and also made sure they had effective youth development schemes while Villa effectively dropped theirs (in 1962) to keep costs down! Even the training ground went to save on expenditure. In 1964 Villa managed to sell star youngster George Graham to Chelsea for £5,000. He thrived at Chelsea (under Tommy Docherty) and then Arsenal, and for Scotland. Villa could have claimed at least £25,000 for him (which was then a going fee for such a young and talented player) but the board did not seem to have a clue.

Villa was known to be a homely club, but the custodians had become too comfortable in their seats. They sat and gloried in the fame of times past. Well, the chairman (Chris Buckley) had played in the 1910 championship team.

After Rinder died in 1938, Villa seemed to go to pot. Stories of financial wastage and lack of foresight were common at Villa Park from the 1940s to the 1960s. After manager Joe Mercer was sacked from Villa in 1964 for no fault of his own and after being very ill, he said “We always seemed to be worried about money at Villa.” Properly backed, Mercer led Man City to the championship in 1968 and the Cup the following year.

In the years to 1961 and after, Villa’s board believed in their version of the old way of doing things, even to the extent that after Villa suddenly and unexpectedly won the Cup in 1957, Eric Houghton (then the team manager) was not even invited to the head table at the club’s subsequent celebration dinner. And they didn’t even pay him the bonus that had been promised to him by the previous (late) chairman if he won a trophy.

Houghton said afterwards: “We won the Cup, but the board then didn’t seem to know what to do”.

We all know about the wonderful revolution at the club in late 1968 and the remarkable recovery that saw the League championship and the European Cup being won by 1982, but then Doug Ellis took over (again) and caution ruled once more as the club was substantially in debt and was suffering decreasing ‘gates’ because of the recession of the time. Miopic vision again became entrenched when Doug Ellis brought in his own henchmen onto the board. The promise of the 1990s now seems to have been an accident and probably only came around as a result of Graham Taylor’s work, quickly followed by the extra cash being available in the then newly-established Premier League. The appointment of Ron Atkinson and then Brian Little as managers helped to work some wonders.

More money became available after Villa was floated on the Stock Exchange in 1997, but despite the additional income obtained from Yorke’s sale, substantial player investment seemed to be difficult for Ellis, despite his stated ambition to win the League. By 2001 the gravy-train had largely come to a halt, although money had somehow been found to re-build the Trinity Stand.

Forty years on from 1961, in June, 2001, The Times (in writing about the then-big Gareth Southgate dilemma at Villa) declared: “Many believe that his stance reflects [the fans'] own disillusionment with a nondescript club.”

Nowt changes much, does it? That Villa could be referred to as “a nondescript club”, I mean. Thirteen years on and that description can still be applied, though Villans would not use that term. Villans, understandably, prefer to use more positive terms like “a sleeping giant” rather than use a term that might seem derogatory.

Yet, within that often very sad and often mis-managed most recent 70-years-worth of history, there have been the moments that remain with us and will for as long as we live. These moments have been enough to sustain us and cause us to believe that Aston Villa is a football club that is worthy of regeneration and is able to act as a standard bearer for Midlands football. And – I have to say it; it’s the bottom line after all – we love the club.

Wanted: one custodian with empathy and ability to put it all right. Financial rewards: none.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Let's Be Positive!! What Other Choice Is There?!

I think most Villans are still in a state of shock that Villa have performed so badly these past few years after welcoming Randy Lerner as a saviour.

Most of us are probably wringing our hands in some kind of despair at the state of the club. The owner, mentally, has effectively already left us and the manager probably realises that he’s not necessarily going to be around when (and if) a new owner takes over. And we don’t know who Paul Lambert will have available as his coaching staff next season.

I have been trying to think back to a similar period at Villa in my experience, and though there were like times in the 1950s, the clearest memory I have is of the middle-60s, when the seasons 1964-65 through to 1966-67 lacked proper investment, and trepidation ruled Aston. “What’s going to happen next?”, was the typical thought. And we found out in 1967: it was relegation that happened. A quick return did not look likely and it took another 18 months before a new ownership turned up – and then only after enormous pressure from the fans.

Those sad circumstances cause me to go further down Memory Lane for awhile. I recall the better moments – of Tony Hateley’s thundering headers, and the silky touches of Phil Woosnam, who was the Villa’s ‘schemer’ since 1962. And the injury-littered career of Alan Deakin – a fine player, whose subjugation of Denis Law once caused the Scot to be ordered off the field after his mean retaliation. And the memory of youngster Bobby Park who once broke a collar bone in a match and was so keen to continue playing (in the days before substitutes) that he came back on to the field of play wearing a sling to carry his injured arm!
And there was dear old ‘Slogger’ at centre-half, playing his heart out every week, with Charlie Aitken, Mick Wright and Colin Withers (in goal) too often the last line of defence. But Withers was a great shot-stopper – some compared him to the great Gordon Banks.

Having sold sharp-shooting winger Harry Burrows (who allegedly asked for a transfer after not getting his requested extra fiver per week in his wage packet) in 1965 Villa signed an average-priced player by the name of Willie Hamilton who was actually a good midfielder and who cracked a few decent goals. Such was his influence in midfield that Phil Woosnam moved forward to support Hateley and managed to score over 20 goals as a result in 1965-66! But Villa were plagued by injuries and a 16th place finish became the norm at that time. And early in the 1966-67 season Villa lost Woosnam (who retired to start off U.S. league football) and then Hateley to Chelsea. With Deakin and Hamilton absent through injury too often, there was lack of quality to keep Villa up. Enthusiasm alone was not enough.

Yes, the past couple of years have reminded me of the similarities between now and then.

But maybe, even in this current state of semi-chaos without any sense of certainty that a new owner will be installed by August, we should try to look at what we have to look forward to in order to remain sane and to restore an element of positivity!

Yep, believe it or not there is something positive coming up. And it’s almost as though Villa have a new team at their disposal!

It is likely that Benteke (perhaps because of his injury last season) will still be with us. And we’ll also have Okore and Kozak back from injury. Added to this we have the statement made by Lambert this week that “… we’ll look to identify players of proven quality to bring in …”. Well, we have to see what precisely he means by that. It could of course mean a number of Grant Holt clones (!) … but perhaps not, though the departure of Albrighton is a bit disturbing.

On the other hand Grealish seems to have been recognised by the manager as someone who should step forward and claim his place. And perhaps we may see N'Zogbia back.

In short, we might have a team to start the new season that contains some quality. Who would have believed it! Even though there’s probably a good chance that Bertrand might not return, it was observed vs Chelsea last season that Bennett might be settling in. What about this team:

Guzan; Lowton, Vlaar, Okore, Bennett; Westwood, Grealish, Delph; N'Zogbia, Benteke, Gabby. Subs: (gk), Kozak, Clark, Bacuna, Robinson.

Yes, I still have faith in Gabby and I feel a summer’s rest might restore his vitality. He did start 2013-14 very well, as, indeed, he finished well in 2012-13.

But even though I like the sound of Grealish in the middle, the prevailing question will be about whether Villa have enough bite in midfield. Maybe the signing of “players of proven quality” will remove that doubt.

Milner, Barry and Young then please!

Friday, 9 May 2014

140 years is over. What's next?

The end of another season looms. Another unwanted record (of the most home defeats) has entered the record book to accompany last season’s record competitive defeat, the 0-8 result at Chelsea. And there was also the Culvergate affair.

However, the cynic might say that the rare home win last Saturday came at precisely the psychologically right time for the club to convince the Villa fans that all is well: the apparent avoidance of relegation gave chance for the club to infer that the situation is under control and that all we have to do is wait for next season to see that everything will be okay.

Meanwhile, noises are uttered from Villa Park that the club (now) realises that better quality players are needed and, with the club already being top-heavy with strikers, yet another striker is referred to as a possible target. Yes, better quality is needed, but will the right kind of players arrive – and will the team start playing Premier League football? Will the width of Villa Park be narrowed as we rarely play with any proper wingers?

Assuming that Mr. Lerner remains in his seat, are we now to see Paul Lambert remain as manager and supervising the acquisition of relatively expensive players that produce ‘nil points’? I seem to recall the manager last January admitting that Villa needed a wise head in midfield yet signed Grant Holt as his answer to the issue.

While being happy to see the passing of this season, I feel that the inferred continued presence of both chairman and manager gives us a situation that might cause any right-thinking Villa fan to take himself to some distant cave to meditate and pray that when he returns normal service (whatever that is!) is resumed. I suspect that, deep down, we really regret accusing Doug of being mean with with his expenditures and wish that we could switch the clock back some 20 years. But we wanted change, got it, and we have had to live with the consequences. Perhaps the best that we can now hope for is that, sooner or later, David Cameron will arrive on his white Arab charger with a rich sheikh in tow.

But, with little other option apart from changing our habits of many winters, let us fix our attention on realism and the positive and assume that all will be well. Perhaps there will be light at the end of the tunnel; perhaps (as Doug intended) Frank Lampard and Paul Gascoigne may yet be seen in a Villa shirt. Yep, I assure you they are ‘real men’.

The Villa’s 140th birthday passes by without hardly a sound. Where will Villa be when the 150th comes around in 2024?

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Happiness is a pause between bouts of pain.

Supporters of Manchester United don't realise it - that happiness or success cannot be a permanent condition. But 22 years of virtually continuous League, Cup and European qualification (and more) must make the mind a bit immune to anything different, of course. That level of success must affect you as intoxication gives you light-headedness. But when the morning comes - which eventually it must - the headache is there.

David Moyes must have been equally intoxicated when he took on that job.

But even Sir Alex at one time thought he was going to face tough opposition from the Villa. Imagine that! League runner-up in 1993 (to Man U) and defeating Man U in no uncertain terms at Wembley in 1994 must (in the way that Villa did it under Big Ron)  have frightened Sir Alex.

With these two teams leading the table, the Villa braves went to Old Trafford with a few games to go in the 1992-93 season, when the Villa fans did not dare to hope that they would see their favourites come away with much except black eyes and sore shins. But, heavens above, Stevie Staunton drove in a peach from outside the area to put Villa ahead! As that happened, I was sitting at the wheel of my car in London waiting to chauffer my wife's relative to his wedding. By that time I was hoping that I did not have to turn off the radio! Then, as seems to be always the case with the Villa these last 20-odd years, the ecstasy soon evaporated when Mark Hughes levelled. But a point it was and the League title still looked as though it was in the balance. Sadly, though, Villa fell away at the last hurdle and ended the season with three successive defeats.

Always to be remembered is the first of those defeats against Blackburn Rovers, at home: Villa lost 0-3. And the architect for the opposition was none other than Gordon Cowans! The cheek of the (old) lad! Big Ron quickly signed him back for Villa and for his third spell at Villa Park.

The 1994 League Cup Final against Man U was orchestrated by Big Ron as though the thought of revenge was deep inside his frontal cortex. He seemed to cover every eventuality in his game plan and the result was that a very fine-looking Man U side (and Alex Ferguson) were utterly out-foxed. What a match! And what strikers we then had in Dean Saunders and Dalian "Sick Note" Atkinson, prompted by the mature wiles of Kevin Richardson, the drive of Andy Townsend and the mercurial dash of Tony Daly. And there was Paul McGrath.

That day was like pure ecstasy. Brian Little's League Cup triumph two years later was also a fine win, but it somehow did not give the sense of satisfaction that we gained in 1994 against Man U. But at the start of his 1995-96 season, Little Brian again showed that Villa was a team to be afraid of as they put Man U to the sword at Villa Park by 3 goals to 1. That was the game after which a certain Alan Hansen said "They [Man U] can't win anything with kids." Well, they (Man U) did - they won the League again. And Villa have not beaten them at Villa Park since. And not since the incredible ex-Red, Paul McGrath, left Villa Park.

The time since 1996 (now 18 years) seems to have been a case of Villa wanting to catch up with Man U (and the rest of the moneybag teams), but lacking the wherewithall to achieve it. And now we're at the point where we can't sink any lower, having exhausted our attempts to do it while mis-spending money and, more frequently, peanuts.

The only way, surely, is now up. Man U has slipped (and in my opinion will not get back to top dog for awhile yet); their time is for a bit more pain while the Villans are due some happiness. But let's find that
wherewithall to achieve it. It's a must.